Holy Cow! An Indian Adventure. Sarah MacDonald
New Years Eve revelry, Diwali, wild disco parties, ashrams, Bollywood, yoga lessons, weddings, heat and dust. Australian Sarah MacDonald experiences this all in her funny, perceptive account of her sojourn in India in the 90’s – an India that is alien to many of India’s diaspora who left the country years ago. This is a very new and different India, and India of “Reality TV shows”, relaxed moral values in young adults, decaying mansions and their owners from a bygone era.
After a miserable first encounter with the third world – travel sickness, beggars, mosquitoes and incompetent bureaucracy, Sarah vows to never visit India again. A prophecy forced on her by a palmist/beggar at the airport rattles her – “You, madam, you come back to India, …….” But she dismisses it vehemently and returns to Australia. Little does she know that the prophecy will come true many years later when her boyfriend Jonathan moves to India to work as a reporter for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Unable to stay apart, she resigns her job as a TV reporter and joins him, full of apprehension and little enthusiasm. What follows is a love-hate story of her relationship with India.
The story reads like fiction but the drama of Indian society is way too real. A friend’s mother commits suicide when she discovers the marriage of her daughter to someone of her own choice. In Kashmir the scenery includes coffins and guns. A nasty bug picked up after a Ganges dip leads to a nightmare flu, hospitalization and a prolonged recovery. For Sarah the hospital is a bewildering cocktail of compassion, inefficiency (she picks up stomach flu there) and questionable safety (her fiancé has to be her bodyguard at night). Yet her close brush with death transforms her and instead of making her retreat in disgust it spurs a spiritual quest to discover herself.
Throwing the swords down, the naked blue-black sadhus jump and dance around us and the camera. They are waving, shaking my hand, shivering and doing all too revealing cartwheels. Their faces split into huge grins and their dreadlocks glisten with drops of water….
It’s a meeting of the primal and the prim, the faithful and the foreign, the devotee and the doubter. I breathe in the rapture and joy on their faces, and for a moment I feel their ecstasy. Together we wade in the waters that form heaven on earth.
Spirituality becomes her theme and in India she finds a multitude of faiths represented. While her discerning ability as a journalist helps her cut through the smoke and mirrors of various cults, her open-minded attitude keeps her compassionate and non-judgmental. She encounters a doomsday sect consisting of only White Westerners, obsessed with sunscreen and kundalini yoga. Their hyperventilation exercise makes everyone feel light-headed, happy and dizzy, but Sarah feels it is oxygen saturation not God realization as the others believe. Another ashram that she visits is like a commercial resort with preferential treatment given to foreigners (at a higher price). On the other hand, she feels that a Vipassana meditation retreat in Dharmasala involving ten days of complete sensory deprivation gives her a glimpse of transcendence.
After a Christmas wedding in Australia her newly-wed travel plans include a trip to the Maha Kumbh Mela where she finds a “bamboo Las Vegas” a man- made street of camps belonging to the various babas. This is an intense course in Hinduism and a chance to observe the bliss of thousands of pilgrims charge into the water for a holy dip at the blow of a whistle. Her smorgasbord of spiritual sampling includes a Jewish group from Israel and the Parsi community in Mumbai. Finally, at the insistence of her Christian household help and her own nagging conscience she goes on a pilgrimage to the Church of Velangani in Tamil Nadu. There she discovers that only in India is Mary (draped in a sari) worshiped as a goddess. Pakistan which she finds “strangely similar to yet oddly different from India” introduces her to Sufism.
This time around she is not a tourist but a resident. For someone unaccustomed to the feudal spirit she finds it a little uncomfortable at first to have a retinue of “servants”. But like many Indians, the multitude of arduous tasks that is required to run a household slowly makes her descend into a luxurious dependency on the help. House hunting is a challenge but in Vasant Vihar, a Delhi suburb, Sarah and her fiancé find a brick two-storied house, the home of a retired colonel.
But the hottest hangout of all is the brand-new Barista coffee shop, part of a chain leading a lust for lattes in this traditional chai town. Each café is contemporary cool combined with eighties nostalgia – teenagers sit in jeans and T-shirts and strum guitars while singing along to Billy Joel and John Denver songs. Karaoke is also catching on, with Western songs regularly massacred. The hot favorite is “Hotel California”- almost unrecognizable when screeched in a strong Hindi accent at double decibels.
Sarah is introduced to the dizzy world of Delhi’s elite. Her friend Aarzoo works for a reality TV show RAAH: “Romance Adventure Aap aur Hum” that tests the relationship of young married couples as they go on an adventure trips. At the home of Shabana Azmi and Javed Akhtar she chats with Priety Zinta and Aamir Khan.
The consumer culture around her surprises her but she is a good sport and joins in the activities of her friends Billie and Arzoo – beauty treatments, shopping, parties and weddings. Yogesh is her yoga teacher who teaches a version of yoga that is more “yogaerobics” set to pop music. From her description of her interactions it is clear that many of her Indian acquaintances treated her differently, each trying to impress her with a Westernized persona. Nevertheless, Sarah’s travelogue has the perspective of a native because of her close friendships with many Indians.
Sarah’s language is… well, colorful and her observations often acerbic and ruthlessly explicit. Nothing escapes her and she doesn’t mince words. Every nuance of Indian society, life style and attitude is described with a great sense of humor but tempered with affection for the culture around her. Her words evoke the sights, sounds, and smells of India very realistically. One can almost feel the intense heat of a Delhi summer. Her blunt honesty is intimidating at first but as a reader follows her through her travels we see her evolving into a different person. In the end India grows on her and she embraces Indian society, accepting India’s contradictions. Her empathy for the people she encounters makes her a likeable person and someone worth getting to know, at least through a book.
Reviewed by Lakshmi Jagannathan